Sitting just a few blocks from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Judge Robert Vance Federal Building and United States Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama, was destined to hear many of the landmark civil rights cases. It is only fitting that its neighboring building, the Hugo L. Black Federal Courthouse, was named after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, a member of the court in the seminal (and unanimously decided) civil rights case, Brown v. Board of Education.
Following the 1954 decision in Brown, in 1955, sitting in the Vance Courthouse, Judge H.H. Grooms ruled that Autherine Lucy and Polly Ann Myers had been denied admission to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa solely based on their race, contrary to the law. Grooms noted that, while the university did not have a written policy against admitting students of color, no African- American students had ever been admitted to the university, despite several applicants. Grooms issued an injunction barring anyone from interfering with the right to enroll in the University of Alabama of Lucy, Myers and others who were similarly situated, solely on account of race or color. Lucy and Myers were represented by leading civil rights attorneys, Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter from the NAACP out of New York, and Arthur Shores of Birmingham.
The Civil Rights Movement again reached the Vance Courthouse in 1965, when James Alexander Hood, Vivian Malone and David McGlathery, three African-American students, were scheduled to enroll at the University of Alabama. Judge Grooms heard a motion in which the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama sought to intervene in the Lucy case, seeking to modify Judge Grooms’ July 1, 1955, order. Ultimately, Judge Grooms did not modify his earlier order. The students, however, faced additional hurdles to enrollment.
George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, was just months removed from his infamous “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” inauguration speech and had made a campaign promise that “I shall refuse to abide by any such illegal federal court order even to the point of standing in the schoolhouse door, if necessary.” Upon learning of Grooms’ decision not to modify the order, Wallace stated publicly that he would be present to bar the entrance of any African-American student who attempted to enroll at the University of Alabama. Thus, a motion for temporary injunction was made in United States v. Wallace, and such motion was heard by Judge Seybourn Lynne in what is now the Vance Courthouse. On June 3, 1963, Lynne entered the injunction, which in conjunction with an executive order issued by then-President John F. Kennedy, allowed Malone and Hood to enroll at the university.
Construction of the Courthouse
Thanks to the work of Congressman and later Senator Oscar W. Underwood, inter alia, downtown Birmingham received appropriations for a new and large federal building. Between 1911 and 1913, work began to acquire half of city block, sitting along Fifth Avenue between Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets North. At that time, seven homes sat on the property. By 1916, plans were complete for the U.S. Post Office/Courthouse to be built on that half city block (James A. Wetmore was then serving as acting supervising architect of the treasury). Construction began on the building, and the cornerstone was laid on May 15, 1918. However, because of World War I, construction was halted, and the building was not completed and occupied until 1921.
By 1921, the new post office and courthouse stood two stories tall over a basement. The U.S. Post Office occupied the first floor, and courtrooms were located on the second floor. It was always intended that the building would be added on to, and in the 1930s, two additional floors were added to the building. The building has housed appellate judges, district judges, magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges, including former Eleventh Circuit Judge Robert Vance.
Naming it the Vance Courthouse
On Dec. 16, 1989, Judge Robert Vance was killed in his Mountain Brook, Alabama, home as he opened a package containing a bomb. At that time, Vance was working in Birmingham as an active judge on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Two days after Judge Vance’s murder, Robert Robinson, a Savannah attorney and prominent civil rights advocate, was also killed by a package bomb. Later, two more bombs were discovered, one addressed to the federal courthouse in Atlanta and another to the Jacksonville office of the NAACP. At first, it appeared that the targets of the bombs were chosen based on their work in civil rights. However, authorities eventually determined that Walter Leroy Moody had sent the bombs and targeted Judge Vance based on his contact with Vance in a court case in the 1980s. It is believed that Moody sent the other bombs to divert authorities. On June 28, 1991, Moody was convicted of more than 70 charges and sentenced to life in prison.
In 1990, the building was renamed in memory of Vance, who had had his office in the same building.
Construction of Hugo Black Courthouse
The Hugo Black Courthouse was completed in 1987 and sits nine stories tall. The courthouse was designed by the KPS Group, located in Birmingham. The building has a post-modern style with a limestone base on the bottom two floors and a glass curtain wall above. Birminghambased Brasfield and Gorrie served as general contractor on the project.
The building is located catty-corner to the Vance Courthouse, at Fifth Avenue and Eighteenth Street North in Birmingham. The building was named after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who served on the high court from 1937 to 1971. Upon its completion in 1987, the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals moved from the Vance building to their new home in the Black Courthouse.
The lobby of the building contains a bust of Hugo Black. There are several plaques on the walls along the first floor, including some that quote from opinions of Black. From 1991 to 2012, a granite sculpture titled “Red Mountains” adorned the front steps of the building. It was designed by Dimitri Hadzi. The large sculpture was eventually removed due to security concerns.
The Vance Courthouse Today
In 2009, the Vance Courthouse underwent a $40 million renovation funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Work included repairing and replacing windows, repairing exterior walls, restoring the original marble and wood paneling, installing new historically accurate light fixtures and adding in skylights. One of the goals of the project was also to achieve Green Building Council LEED Silver certification.
Today, the Vance Courthouse hosts three large bankruptcy courtrooms on the first floor. The probation office occupies the second floor. The third floor contains Judge Lynne’s former courtroom and offices for Alabama’s two senators, currently Richard Shelby and Luther Strange. The U.S. Marshal’s office is located on the fourth floor. The building also contains a basement. U.S. District Judge Seybourn H. Lynne's former courtroom is found on the third floor of the Vance Courthouse. At the time of Judge Lynne's death in 2000, at the age of 93, he was the longest serving federal judge in the United States.
The Hugo Black Courthouse Today
Today, the Hugo Black Courthouse hosts an Eleventh Circuit judge and many U.S. district and magistrate judges for the Northern District of Alabama. Judge Karon O. Bowdre is currently the chief judge of the Northern District of Alabama, and she occupies the ceremonial courtroom in the building. This courtroom was built just a few years ago and allows the court to have large audiences for proceedings.
Judges William H. Pryor, Jr. and Kevin Newsom of the Eleventh Circuit also maintain their offices in the Black building, though the Eleventh Circuit does not currently hold argument in Birmingham. Further, Sharon Harris serves as the clerk for the Northern District of Alabama with her office in the Black Courthouse.
Republished with permission. This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of 11th Circuit Historical News.
*All photos taken by Emily M. Ruzic.